Like other M-series cameras, the front of the M8 is flat. A burnished metal button on the left of the lens mount releases the lens. A black lever to the right of the lens sits just above the camera's surface. Moving the lever left or right shifts the frame lines in the viewfinder, to show the angle of view for lenses from 24 to 90mm. The front and back of the M8 are covered with a synthetic material with a leather-grain texture.
The top quarter or so of the M8 is a cap milled from a piece of brass that is plated with either a dull chrome or black. Three rectangular windows in the cap form the viewfinder image. From the left, they are the rangefinder window, the frame-line illuminator window and finally the main viewfinder. A red circle with the Leica logo is centered on the front of the cap, and "M8" is engraved at far right. A small, round window along the upper edge of the cap is a secondary sensor for the light meter.
The viewfinder window is at the far left of the back. It's small, compared to high-end DSLRs, but it's fully visible for glasses-wearers. A column of buttons runs down along the side of the 2.5-inch LCD, starting just below the viewfinder. They are labeled Play, Delete, Protect, Info and Set. To the right of the LCD, near the top corner, is the Menu button. The 4-way controller, which is surrounded by a rotating dial, is low on the back, next to the LCD. The M8 is labeled "Leica Camera Made in Germany" along the bottom edge of the cap.
A circular, monochrome LCD shows through a window at the far left of the top, showing the image counter and battery status. The hot shoe, which accepts dedicated flashes, is slightly off-center above the lens mount. The shutter speed dial is to the right of that. It's relatively small and flat, with marked speeds from 1/8000 to 4 seconds, plus B for time exposures and A for automatic shutter speed. The shutter release is a small metallic button that's threaded for a mechanical cable release. The button sits in a concave dish about fingertip size. The power switch sticks out from under the dish. It can be set to off, single shot, or continuous shooting.
The sides of M-series cameras are rounded from side to side, and they are plain. The left side has a small strap lug just below where the cap starts, a resilient cover over the USB port, and a small tab that catches the left end of the bottom cover. A rectangle of plastic is set just above the strap lug, apparently to protect the finish on the cap.
The right side of the Leica M8 features nothing but the strap lug and the protective plastic above it.
The bottom of the M8 comes completely off, just the same way previous M-series cameras work to load film. The same metal, pivoting latch folds out from the right end, and turns. The bottom tilts off until it is freed from a small catch on the left end. Unlike old Leicas, the M8's tripod socket is centered on the lens axis, making the camera easier to balance on tripods. Removing the bottom reveals the Li-ion battery, and the SD card slot.
The Leica M8's viewfinder is a rangefinder. Bright lines show the edges of the frame, and a rectangle in the center is a coincident rangefinder. All of the items are sharply defined, and bright. The framelines vary depending on what lens is attached to the camera – a cutout in the lens mount moves the same mechanism as the preview lever on the front of the camera, changing the frame lines to match the lens. One limitation of this system is that the actual magnification of the view never changes – a telephoto lens corresponds to a small set of frame lines around the center of the view, rather than enlarging the subject. The other issue is that the sets of frame lines appear in pairs – 24 and 35 mm are paired, as are 28 and 90 mm, 50 and 75 mm. It is not usually a challenge to remember which of the two lenses is mounted, but it's not as simple as using an SLR, which shows the real image made by whatever lens is attached.
In automatic exposure mode, the M8 displays the shutter speed in the viewfinder, superimposing it in red over the field of view. It also shows flash status, exposure compensation, works like a match-needle exposure indicator in manual mode, and shows when conditions are beyond the meter range. Leica says that the brightness of the indicators varies according to ambient lighting. We couldn't test that at the Photokina booth, but the brightness was appropriate to the conditions there.
The Leica M8 has a 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD that shows menus, controls and images for review. It is very sharp and has excellent color. The display text is clear and elegant. Leica says the LCD has 5 brightness levels. The display remains visible over a broad range of angles. With the eyepiece set on the far left end of the M8, most users won't be bothered by nose or cheek prints on the LCD surface, either – it's out of the way for anyone who looks through viewfinders with their right eye.
We found the display remarkably good for reviewing images. It shows images at up to 100 percent – meaning that each pixel on the LCD corresponds to one image pixel. We noted very fine image detail at that setting.
The Leica M8 does not have a built-in flash, but it accepts dedicated Leica flashes. We did not have a chance to see or test the flash, which uses a through the lens metering system. In an usual move Leica adopted a metering system that uses a preflash to measure exposure. Most high-end systems measure flash exposure as it happens, and cut off the flash when enough light has been emitted. A preflash introduces a delay. Testing will indicate how much of a delay.
We looked at the M8 with a 35mm Summicron f/ 2.0, the newest version of one of Leica's most popular optics. The M8's sensor format imposes a 1.33 magnification, making the 35 comparable to a 45mm lens on a film camera. The Summicron images seemed very sharp and well-corrected onscreen.
New Leica lenses have 6-bit encoding, a set of marks on the lens mount which the M8 can read. According to Leica, the codes allow the M8 to account for vignetting, to communicate focal length to the dedicated flash, and to include lens information in EXIF data, and coordinate flash sync shutter speed with focal length. Old lenses can have 6-bit encoding added, though Leica staff indicate this might not be justified with some older optics.
**Model Design / Appearance **
We typically start this section with a category such as "DSLR," "compact" or even "SLR-like." There isn't a term other than "Leica M" that is both specific and accurate for the M8. Rangefinder embraces too many clunky, cheap cameras.
The Leica M series is a simple, refined design. It is very expensively-built: the cap and bottom are milled out of solid blocks of brass, and the front and back are magnesium alloy castings. The costly construction pays off. There are no poorly-matched joints. In fact, none of the joints are evident at all. The seam around the bottom is so tight that it's a surprise when the thing comes off – the components are so well-matched they seem to be one piece instead of two. The camera is very solid. Beyond that, it feels and looks luxurious, in an elegant, form-follows-function way.
Size / Portability
The M8 is 5.45 x 3.16 x 1.45 inches, and weighs, without the battery, 19.2 ounces. That's small compared to DSLRs. M-series lenses are also relatively small. They are just as fabulously expensive as the cameras, so $10,000 of Leica equipment takes up a tiny fraction of the space $10,000 worth of Canon, Nikon or Olympus equipment might. An M8 and a couple of lenses are much smaller than a DSLR with a normal zoom lens – and the Leica lenses will be wider-aperture.
The M8 will hang nicely from a shoulder strap. Though some photographers use wrist straps with Leicas, they're a little heavy for that. The close fit and strong latch on the bottom, and the resilient door on the USB port indicate good seals against dust and moisture.
DSLR users have gotten accustomed to bulbous hand grips, and Leica makes an accessory that supplies one. We found the Leica M8 comfortable as it is. One digitalcamerainfo.com staffer was a long-time Leica M2 user, and found the M8 very familiar in hand – even though it lacks a film advance. The most unfamiliar sensation was that the M8 felt a little thick. It's about 2 mm thicker than its film predecessors.
As plain and flat as it is, the M8 is comfortable to hold. The round right side fits between thumb and index finger, while the left had sits a bit lower, with part of the hand supporting the camera from underneath, and the thumb and index finger turning the focus ring on the short lenses.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size
The M8 shutter release is smooth, with a short travel and not much resistance. It has three positions. A slight depression activates the light meter, a bit more locks exposure in automatic mode, and pressing fully takes a shot.
The other buttons feel solid and work smoothly. The 4-way controller is a set of four buttons. We typically favor a single control that can be rocked in four directions. The dial around the 4-way buttons is a little like Canon's Quick Control Dial, though the M8 version offers more resistance, and is set up to function with smaller movements.
**The Set button brings up frequently-used shooting functions, while the Menu button brings up items most often on cameras' set-up menus. Because the camera lacks a few key functions, its menus are relatively short. **
Ease of Use
The Leica M8 departs from a range of digital camera conventions, yet we, and most of the other visitors to the Leica booth, had few questions about how to work it – the questions were more often about construction, compatibility and so on. It's simple to use because Leica has made the controls obvious, and because the M8 has relatively few options – it's fundamentally a manual camera.
The Leica M8 does not have a full auto mode, in part because the aperture control is not mechanically linked to the camera body. The M8 can set an automatic white balance, but does not offer automatic ISO or autofocus – again, the lenses aren't built for it. The camera can operate in Aperture-priority mode, setting the shutter speed to match the selected aperture.
The Leica M8 does not have a movie mode, which is usually associated with a live electronic preview.
Drive / Burst Mode
The M8 can shoot 2 frames per second for up to 10 frames. It can also be set to single-shot mode. That's a remarkably slow, small burst for an expensive camera. The lack of autofocus, zoom lenses and exposure automation are all related to the fundamental architecture of M-series cameras, but it's not obvious why the M8 is so slow.
The superb LCD is key to the Leica M8's playback mode. At 100 percent – one pixel onscreen for each pixel in the image – it clearly shows how well the image is in focus, and shows image noise clearly. For a shot of a person from the waist up, that shows the threads going through the holes in shirt buttons.
The M8 shows thumbnail images 4 or 9 at a time. While showing a single shot, it can show shooting information, as well as luminance or RGB histograms that do or do not show clipping. The histograms reflect only the area displayed when an image is magnified.
Custom Image Presets
The User Profiles are user-defined custom image presets, controlling ISO, white balance and other image parameters. The settings could allow users to switch quickly between flash and available-light shooting, but they can't switch the camera from full manual to aperture-priority shooting.
Manual Control Options
The Leica M8 is a fully manual camera. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and focus are all easily set manually.
The Leica M8 has no autofocus. Leica-M lenses have no provision for autofocus. The rangefinder system at the heart of the M-series is fundamentally manual.
The Leica M rangefinder works by triangulation. As the user adjusts the lens focus, the image in the bright rectangle superimposed at the center of the viewfinder shifts. When it matches the background exactly, that spot is in focus. The moving image is projected by a mirror in the rangefinder window. The mirror pivots as the lens' focus mount turns, and the camera measures distance through the angle at which the rangefinder mirror is pivoted. The Leica system is built to a close enough tolerance that the system can accurately focus the 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux and the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux.
In practice, the rangefinder allows users to nail focus exactly on a single point, and is more accurate than SLR focus for wide-angle lenses. Its great drawback is that it does not show depth of field. It depends on user skill, but it's not likely to be nearly as fast as autofocus systems.
The M8 offers manual and aperture-priority exposure modes. The manual mode shows three symbols in the viewfinder – one to indicate underexposure, one correct exposure and one over exposure. The user can shift the aperture dial and shutter speed dial to light up the signal for correct exposure. The exposure compensation control can be set from 3 EV above to 3 EV below the metered reading, in 1/3-EV steps.
The M8 has a silicon photodiode that is pointed at the camera's shutter. One of the shutter's metal blades is painted light gray, and the sensor takes a "heavily center-weighted" reading off the shutter. Apparently, the color of the blade influences the metering pattern. The Set button calls up an exposure compensation control. A second light meter peeks from a small window along the top edge of the camera.
It's clear that spot and evaluative metering could have been incorporated in this camera. Leica knows how to do that.. It's not entirely clear why they aren't on a camera with the amenities of the M8.
The Leica M8 offers automatic white balance, begging the question of whether it's possible to exclude it from a digital camera. The M8's presets are: Daylight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade. The M8 also takes manual white balance readings, and did a fine job with a Leica staffer's crisp white shirt. Users can also set Kelvin temperatures directly, from 2000 to 13,100K.
We used the Auto setting and the manual setting. The manual setting was superior under mixed fluorescent lighting, but the Auto setting was very close.
The M8 even has odd-ball ISOs: 160, 320, 640, 1250 and 2500. Anyone for High-Speed Ektachrome or Kodak Super-XX? We prefer to see ISOs in 1/3-EV increments, and these are full steps, restricting the user's control over noise to some extent. The M8 does not have an Auto ISO setting.
The M8's manual shutter speeds run in half-steps from 1/8000 to 4 seconds in half-steps. In auto mode, the M8 sets speeds steplessly from 32 seconds to 1/8000. There is no practical limit to the length of time exposure the M8 will allow when set to Bulb, according to Leica.
M-series Leica lenses have manual aperture controls. Since the lenses are used only for taking the image, not focus or viewing, the iris stays where it is until the user changes the setting. The arrangement also removes the need for any mechanical or electronic link between the meter and the aperture. The meter simply sets the shutter speed for the intensity of light it measures inside the camera – it doesn't matter whether its from a bright environment seen through a small aperture, or a dark subject seen with a wide f-stop. Because they aren't linked to anything, the aperture rings can be set anywhere between f/stops, though the rings click into place at the standard settings.
Picture Quality / Size Options
In a Titanic blow for common sense, Leica implemented the M8 with the DNG format, an open-standard form of RAW file. The hope is that as DNG is broadly adopted, it will be less likely to become obsolete than proprietary RAW formats. The M8 also shoots JPEGs, and offers two levels of compression. The DNG files are 3916 x 2634 pixels. The JPEGs can be shot at 3936 x 2630, 2952 x 1972, 1968 x 1315 or 1312 x 876 pixels. Who's going to shoot 1-megapixel files with a $5000 camera? Apparently, we lack imagination, because we can't think of anyone.
Picture Effects Mode
The M8 records in sRGB, Adobe RGB or ECI RGB. Color spaces are not color effects, but they are as close as the M8 comes. Or wants to.
The M8 will ship with a version of Capture 1 RAW converter with a profile for the camera.
Jacks, Ports, Plugs
The Leica M8 has a USB 2.0 port, a hot shoe, and a socket for a standard mechanical cable release.
Direct Print Options
The M8 does not offer direct print.
A Li-ion cell powers the M8. The cell is rated for 1900mAh. We find that Li-ion cells offer a good power-to-size ratio, and are relatively light. The M8's cell has its contacts in slots, and the camera apparently has contact blades to fit into those slots. The setup should provide reliable conductivity.
The M8 uses SD cards. SD is a very common format for memory cards. We'd guess that more of them are sold than any other type. Most pro cameras use Compact Flash cards, which are physically larger. The M8 can handle cards up to 4 GB, though Leica warns that not all SD cards are fully compatible with the camera. The company recommends checking its website for a list of approved cards.
Kodak Sensor – Leica has a big deal of the sensor Kodak supplies for the M8. Based on the little we could see on the LCD screen – we wish we had some files to open up and print – the enthusiasm is justified. Color and sharpness look great, and noise seemed well under control at ISO 640. One big challenge was handling the short distance between the lens and the focal plane – it means that the light striking the corners of the sensor comes in at a significant angle. Most sensors don't handle that well, but this Kodak model is designed for it. Sensors have microlenses over each receptor site, to concentrate the light on the sensitve spot on the chip. The microlenses near the edges of the Kodak chip are designed for the angle of the incoming light.
No moire filter – Leica chose not to include a moire filter in the M8, essentially to maximize sharpness and conserve space. Moire can be edited in post-processing, but most manufacturers judge that users would rather take a hit on resolution to avoid having Uncle John's Seersucker suit look psychedelic. Perhaps this is a feature, perhaps it's a pain. We're curious, and look forward to testing it.
All-purpose battery charger – The battery charger works in the US, UK, Europe, and plugs into cars as well. Great for camping!
Leica's SLRs and interchangeable-lens rangefinders have been expensive for as long as they have had competition. They've made Nikons and Canons look like budget options. There are many ways of measuring value – professionals consider how a piece of equipment will increase profits. Investors speculate about whether an item will gain value. Enthusiasts probably won't think about money at all, but if they do, they'll look at the Leica M8 and say that it's obvious where the money went. The materials are without compromise. The craftsmanship is remarkable. The design is careful, very smart and very detailed. It's a niche product. Leica has to spread its development costs over relatively few units sold.
Who’s this Camera For?
Point-and-Shooters – a $5000, almost exclusively manual camera is not for casual users.
Budget Consumers – The M8 is a luxury purchase, even for the few who will use it professionally.
Gadget Freaks – Not all gadget freaks are looking for the cutting edge. Some of them want perfect things. The Leica M8 is in the same league with Rolex watches and Porsches.
Manual Control Freaks – Manual control freaks will love the M8. Its manual controls are front and center, uncrowded by a bunch of automatic options. And apparently, it will have the image quality these types also crave.
Pros/Serious Hobbyists – Rich ones will get this camera. The M8 will be gratifying to use for people who started with film cameras and aspired to M-series cameras, or have some.
The Leica M8 is built beautifully – both the design and the execution show an attention to detail, a thoughtfulness and a clear vision of utility and elegance. It's a great example of how remarkable a manufactured object can be.
For some time, Leica has served the collectors' market, making limited commemorative editions, and plating cameras in gold. It all seems way too Donald Trump for a brand of camera that has been in the hands of great artists and of photojournalists who recorded history, and by doing so, changed history.
We don't expect that anyone with much sense will buy a Leica M8 because they think it's the only camera that will let them make great art or prompt a more humane world. Cameras don't do that. Still, we hope that the people who buy the M8 will use it, will shoot enough to see if it's possible to wear it out. (We're not worried on that score.) Because the saddest thing we can imagine for an M8 to go up on eBay in 30 years, still in a sealed box.
Meet the tester
Patrick Singleton is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
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